(In a series of education themed blogs, Macworld looks at the hopes and challenges facing new and not so new talent across the creative industries.)
James Cullen is a graphic designer living and working in Dublin, Ireland. In June 2008 he graduated from The National College of Art and Design, Dublin, and is currently taking part in the ThreeX3 program with three of the cities finest design studios. His strong classic graphic design work has already won many admirers. Macworld caught up with James to discover his hopes and ambitions for a career in design.
Q. What was your game plan when leaving The National College of Art and Design in Dublin in 2008?
I don't suppose I had a game plan, as such. During the run up to finishing college in May 2008 things were extremely hectic, with finishing degree show projects and what not. Even small things like making my own business cards took way too long. Once everything was wrapped up, I was quite adamant that I needed a website that showcased a bit of diversity in the work that I had done over the previous three years. So some sort of web presence is what I wanted after leaving college, I guess.
Q. Was it a daunting prospect to try and find placements and work?
It's no secret that good graphic design jobs are few and far between, so I suppose there was always that notion in the back of my mind "will I be able to get a job after college"? In spring 2007 I found out about this 9-month internship program called ThreeX3 that was launching for the first time that summer.
In spring 2008, when I was close to finishing, I enquired to see if the program would be running again, and it was. When the submission dates were up, I entered some work and was called back for interview and got picked. Luckily enough, this all happened within a couple of weeks of leaving college so that was me set up for the near future.
But to answer the question, I guess it can be quite daunting leaving college without anything solid lined up, the most important thing though would to be as active and determined as possible, try and meet designers from studios, get advice and after awhile something will pop up.
Q. Can you tell us about the ThreeX3 program?
Three interns are picked by submitting work and each intern spends three months in each studio. The program is intended to bridge the gap between education and "the real world" so while you're treated like a full-time employee, you don't feel too bad asking questions.
The three studios are completely different as well — both in scale and method - so this kind of gives you an insight into the design industry in a relatively small time. As far as internships go, you get a fairly decent wage as well, which is great. If there are any Irish readers I would highly recommend it, it's a great opportunity and a great start to a career in design.
Q. Do you think programs like that and the Erasmus Program offer real and valuable experience?
Definitely. Living in a different country and experiencing another culture, whilst still in college, can only be beneficial. I was fortunate enough to spend five months in the Willem de Kooning Academie in Rotterdam. The college itself was fantastic, and there was a lot of co-faculty communication.
For example, graphic designers would work with fashion designers or furniture designers – it was pretty exciting. The Dutch are renowned as innovators in all sectors of design, and have been for decades, to spend time there changed my perception of what design was.
Q. Have you ever thought "I'm only here to make the tea?" when on placement?
Ha! The old "Tea" question! Luckily with ThreeX3 you are made feel part of a team immediately and although there are different levels of seniority within the studios, I've never felt that I am just here to clean, spray-mount or make tea. I still have a month to go, so you never know!
Q. Are these kind of programs dependent on having a college with good industry links or can individuals seek them out?
ThreeX3 actually has nothing to do with any of the Irish colleges, although it's highly acknowledged by them. It's independently run by the three studios. The only criteria for entering is that you have graduated that year from a 3rd level Irish college in Visual communication / Graphic Design.
Q. Without such programs how do you think students and graduates try and seek out placements?
I think the biggest asset, other than talent, that recent graduates should have is a website that showcases their work, and perhaps their personality. It doesn't have to be an extremely complex Flash/ActionScript jobby. There are plenty of content managed sites out there such as Indexhibit or Cargo that you can customise – just keep it simple and coherent.
When applying to studios these days, I would imagine most applicants would be dismissed immediately if they didn't have a website. Also designers love bits and pieces they can keep, so some sort of personalised mailer is another good way of making a mark. Another effective way, although it may seem daunting, is just to pick up the phone and ring studios. Although studios are extremely busy, most will find the time for a chat and a bit of advice.
Q.When you are just starting how best do you think you should showcase your talents?
Website definitely. The world has become so web savvy with the Internet playing such a huge part in our lives. A website is the quickest way of getting yourself out there. It's also a good way of getting a foot in door for meetings and interviews. The next step would be to bring along your portfolio and pieces of work you've done.
Q. And if you don't have any commissioned work what should you show?
I guess this would only really apply to recent graduates. I wouldn't worry too much about just showing college projects. Future employers will be able to tell if you have a real flair for design. The key to showing work is quality not quantity. If you only have five projects that you are truly happy with, just show them. There's no point putting filler in your portfolio. It can detract from the good stuff.
Q. While gaining experience in design studios do you have time to work on your own projects?
Yes, thankfully I've managed to have time to work on other projects. Saying that, sometimes it's hard to make room for outside work when you're stuck in a studio environment five days a week. Sometimes you just need to switch off from design altogether. But every now and then some really cool projects pop up, some paid, some just for fun, that allow you take your ideas in a different direction and explore ways of making design that maybe you wouldn't necessarily do in your 9-5. At the moment I'm trying to improve my web skills, which is a serious case of trial and error.
Q. And how important do you think it is to keep creating even if you don't have any work on?
Yes, this is vital. I think as a visual person, working or not, you are constantly thinking about design — how that poster you just saw on the bus is crap, or what typeface is used in the newspaper you are reading. So this always keeps the creative wheels turning I guess.
Also something as simple as listening to new music or visiting a new city can spur fresh ideas. If you were out of work for a long stretch of time I would use the time to develop new skills - web and interactive design for example. Lynda.com is great for that stuff.
Q. Do you think it’s also important to keep learning new skills as well, such as animating in Adobe After Effects?
I'm by no means an after effects guru, but yeah I would say that this is important. It's crucial to keep up to date with technology and software, because if you don't you will get left behind. It's mad to think that only 20 years ago computers were being introduced into graphic design, I wonder what we will be working on in 2029? Saying that though, before trying to learn every shortcut for all these new programs on your Mac, I would make sure that I knew the essentials inside-out first.
Q. Finally, where would you like to be creatively in a year or two?
I'm not too worried about the hierarchy in the professional design world - junior, middleweight, senior etc. I just want to be working somewhere where I'm happy and that doesn't keep me creatively starved. As cheesy as it sounds, I would hate to think that one day I wake up and don't feel a hunger for design anymore. I also like the idea of wearing shorts to work, so maybe somewhere warm.